‘Dirty Dancing,’ the mega-hit musical

BABY & JOHNNY: Georgina Rich and Josef Brown at a 2006 London rehearsal of “Dirty Dancing — The Classic Story on Stage.” The show opens today at the Pantages Theatre.
BABY & JOHNNY: Georgina Rich and Josef Brown at a 2006 London rehearsal of “Dirty Dancing — The Classic Story on Stage.” The show opens today at the Pantages Theatre.
(SHAUN CURRY, AFP/Getty Images)

As an original cast member of " Dirty Dancing -- The Classic Story on Stage,” Josef Brown is no stranger to receiving what he calls an “ecstatic reaction” from theatergoers. Even if that reaction is, in effect, a borderline hysterical outpouring of audience adulation more in line with a Jonas Brothers gig than a musical theater production that has been running on London’s West End since 2006.

Brown has performed the role of Johnny Castle -- the macho yet balletic vacation-camp mambo instructor immortalized by Patrick Swayze in 1987’s coming-of-age movie musical “Dirty Dancing” -- on three continents. And he’s seen the way the stage show can trigger wild abandon in “Dirty Dancing’s” core constituency. That is, dedicated fans of the movie who memorize its dialogue, who cherish its saucy dance sequences and class-conscious love story -- not to mention smash hits from the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack such as "(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” and “Hungry Eyes” -- as personal touchstones.

“I had a couple of women jump on stage and koala-bear me in Australia,” Brown said. “In London, it’s more of a ‘good-time’ crowd. While in Chicago, I had two women sitting front-row center delivering almost every line. That was actually really frustrating. A bachelorette party got kicked out at the top of the second act in Boston -- 22 people -- for being too rowdy. A security guard there got hit with a handbag and had to get stitches.”

He paused to consider the powerful mojo that the stage show exerts, having sold nearly 5 million tickets in seven countries since its 2004 debut. It opens today at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre. “On some nights it’s relatively quiet,” said Brown. “But then you get X number of women sitting together, and you’ve got this critical mass. The intensity of the excitement in a small patch of people sweeps through the audience like a brush fire. And everybody goes crazy!”

Bringing up Baby

Although “Dirty Dancing” is hardly the first big-screen hit to be adapted for the stage -- musical versions of “Footloose,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “The Producers” and many others came earlier -- there has never been a theatrically staged cultural mash-up quite like it. As with the movie, the production follows Frances “Baby” Houseman, who grows up fast over the course of a few hot-and-heavy weeks in a dance-crazy Catskills resort in 1963. Against the wishes of her family, she discovers love, political consciousness and her rich interior life as a “dirty dancer.” The narrative unspools against a high-tech, two-story electronic backdrop, with dancers who alternately slink and preen, hot-step and high-kick, lambada and tumble through the air like Texas cheerleaders to a backbeat of some 50 midcentury pop hits.

Despite mixed reviews, the show arrives here as a bona fide entertainment juggernaut after sellout runs in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the Netherlands as well as Berlin and London, where the stage production continues to pack theaters. A touring version has crossed the U.S. with a future commitment by producers to mount the show on Broadway.

It taps a vein of pop music-driven sentimentality (and unabashed cheesiness) à la the ABBA-based jukebox musical “Mamma Mia!” But unlike that production, no one in “Dirty Dancing” spontaneously breaks into song, there’s no unison dancing, and all the music occurs vis a vis some appropriate social setting. And because it is based on a beloved movie with decades of fan ardor behind it, “Dirty Dancing” benefits from some decidedly postmodern interplay between audience and performers.

In other words, people are yelling at the stage -- the kind of talk-back more likely to be experienced at a midnight showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” than, say, “Rent.”

At a recent performance at London’s Aldwych Theatre, devotees quickly distinguished themselves from the clear minority of theatergoers who were obviously dragged there unwillingly. They tittered and whispered when an animatronic log lowered across the stage and a male character began walking across it clutching a large, green, picnic-friendly fruit. By the time Baby (played by Leanne Rowe) uttered one of the movie’s centerpiece jokes -- “I carried a watermelon!” -- peals of laughter filled the theater as though a kind of catharsis had been achieved.

“Audiences shout things out and cheer in anticipation,” the London production’s company manager David Curl said during the intermission. “It can be quite a disruption when they shout out a key line. The cast hates it.”

Audience member Crystal Freeman, 19, admitted that someone seated behind her had admonished her for being too vocal toward the performers. She had traveled from neighboring Essex by train with several other friends to see “Dirty Dancing” to celebrate a pal’s 21st birthday.

“All my friends have come to see it already,” Freeman said. “They said, ‘You’ve got to go!’ I used to watch [the movie version of] ‘Dirty Dancing’ over and over. And I have to say, watching it like this is even better than the film.”

The ‘Dirty’ truth

No one is more surprised at the global success of “Dirty Dancing -- The Classic Story on Stage” than Eleanor Bergstein. She wrote the film based on her own real-life vacation camp dirty dancing experiences (yes, her nickname was Baby too) and resisted the overtures from Broadway producers looking to make a stage adaptation of the movie for 15 years.

Speaking by phone from Berlin, where another stage production of “Dirty Dancing” had recently opened, Bergstein recalled how in the mid-'80s every major movie studio turned down her script. But even after securing independent backing and shooting the $5-million Civil Rights-era romance (Emile Ardolino directed the film, and Kenny Ortega, who went on to direct “High School Musical,” choreographed its dance sequences), she still adjusted her expectations for “Dirty Dancing’s” box-office performance downward.

“We were so beaten down, told by so many people that it was terrible,” Bergstein said. “We didn’t think people would see it beyond one weekend.”

But then a funny thing happened on the way to pop-cultural oblivion: “Dirty Dancing” became a massive hit, seeming to capture the zeitgeist. Its soundtrack generated two multi-platinum-selling albums, its singles topped the charts, and, in particular, "(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” sung by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Grammy in 1987. The soundtrack albums have sold a combined 32 million copies, and the movie’s video/DVD has sold 30 million units worldwide. Moreover, “Dirty Dancing” has been seen by more than 50 million moviegoers in 150 countries, according to Lionsgate, which owns the rights to the film and administrates its licensing. The company still counts “Dirty Dancing” among its top-selling catalog titles with continuing sales of a million units a year.

Still, Bergstein refused to cash in on the movie’s popularity with a musical-theater version for fear of running afoul of all the fan goodwill -- “zealotry” may be a better word -- that “Dirty Dancing” had accrued over the years. “They are so loving and personally connected to it, I would never want them to think, ‘Well, you have it at home on video. Now pay some more to see it in a theater,’ ” she said. “It’s a no-brainer to make money. But that’s such an awful reason for doing anything.”

Two factors ultimately persuaded her otherwise. In 2002, Bergstein attended a Bruce Springsteen concert that opened her eyes to the power of a shared musical experience and in particular, how “a live experience could bring people together.” Also, she heard about all-day “Dirty Dancing” marathons on cable TV channels that would play the movie on a repeating loop. “People didn’t just dip in and out, they watched it all day for hours,” Bergstein said. “It’s not that it’s the greatest movie ever made. But they wanted to be in its presence. Something happened to them while they were there. They wanted to be there while it was happening. And if that was true, live theater would be its natural form.”

Swayed by Swayze

Josef Brown counts himself among those whose lives have been profoundly shaped by “Dirty Dancing.” Growing up in Australia, he first saw the movie in his midteens and credits Swayze’s Johnny character with influencing his future professional path. Brown became a member of the Australian Ballet and was cast as Johnny Castle in “Dirty Dancing” in its Sydney debut after a stint with the Sydney Dance Company.

“When you’re a young guy, you don’t know if you should keep dancing,” Brown said. “You’re getting pressure from your mates. But it was the film that said it’s OK to pursue this dream as a career. It’s OK to dance, to be tough and street but also incredibly graceful and sensitive. To be a straight guy who can still hang out with his mates.”

Of course, it’s unlikely those mates could have foreseen Brown as he appears in his most dramatic scene in the stage production: stripped to the waist, greased up with baby oil, abs taut and glistening beneath the stage lights with screaming women all around him.

But after five years with the show, after bringing the house down in the third act night after night by shouting out the movie’s most famous line of dialogue -- “Nobody puts Baby in a corner!” -- and hoisting his leading lady into the air to the strains of "(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” to another standing ovation, Brown said this season of “Dirty Dancing -- The Classic Story On Stage” will be his last.

“I’ve experienced some incredible highs with this show’s audiences, and it’ll be hard to come down,” Brown said. “Most casts I’ve worked with, they all say, ‘What are we going to do when we have to go back to a normal show? It’ll feel so flat.’ ‘Dirty Dancing’ is like a drug, an addiction. You can’t wait to get onstage. It’s a kinetic experience.”